The issue of mainland Chinese mothers coming to Hong Kong to give birth is much in the news lately, with some people hoping new chief executive Leung Chun-ying will take steps to limit the number of beds available to mainland mothers. I thought it was a good time to excerpt this story from Yeeshan Yang’s book Whispers and Moans — now available in Kindle, Nook and Kobo e-versions.
This story was in fact adapted for the screen in the Hong Kong movie True Women for Sale, starring Anthony Wong Chau-sang and Race Wong.
Fertility for sale
The view in south China is that northern girls are looked down upon and northern wives are trodden on. Here is the story of Limfa, a peasant girl who would normally have few survival options. Without a pleasing appearance, she chose not to be a hooker, but followed a survival strategy more helpless than prostitution.
It was a typical morning at 6:30am on Mongkok Road. Construction workers were gathering to wait for the site supervisor, who would pick the labour he needed for the day. Uncle Gin could not sleep and had arrived at 5:00am. He needed money badly and wanted to be at the front of the queue. He squatted on the pavement and prayed for the supervisor to come early; no matter what, he had to work today.
Carrying a document folder and wearing a grey suit and a big smile, Kwai approached the hopeful men waiting for work. As Uncle Gin saw the smiling insurance salesman, he immediately turned away. Old Keung was standing next to him, and before he could do anything to save himself, Kwai had locked onto him, saying: “Hi there, Old Keung, you should buy insurance as early as you can. You are only in your fifties, with no injuries and no illness. The monthly payments would be very low.”
Old Keung was tired of the repeated sales pitch and said to Kwai, “I have told you many times, wait till I find a wife.”
The regular casual labourers nicknamed Kwai ‘the insurance Kwai’ – in Cantonese the word ‘Kwai’ sounds like ‘loss’ and insurance sounds like ‘sure’, indicating that buying insurance from Kwai did not sound like a good deal.
Insurance Kwai instantly responded to Old Keung: “You’ve been talking about getting married for years and years.” But Old Keung was running out of patience: “You think I enjoy being single! I just can’t raise enough for the marriage. What can I do?”
Seeing Uncle Gin trying to slip away, Kwai called out: “Hey Uncle Gin! Why are you so hard to find? The only place I can find you is here, early in the morning!”
“Don’t push me so hard!” replied Uncle Gin. “I haven’t cleared my prostitution debts yet, and my wife is having a new baby.” Kwai was shocked. “Haven’t you had enough babies, Uncle Gin?”
Old Keung was amazed as well. “Your first wife gave you four children, your new wife already had one, and you want more? That must cost you a few dollars!”
“She’s a tigress, she won’t have an abortion no matter what I say, so what can I do?” Uncle Gin sighed with resignation. Kwai showed no interest in Uncle Gin’s family troubles; he just wanted him to pay the money he owed. “Uncle Gin, I paid your last month’s life insurance premium, plus this month’s. That’s HK$1,120 you owe me.”
“I don’t want the insurance any more, I’m giving it up,” said Uncle Gin.
“Giving it up? How about your little boys, your little girls, and your young wife, what will they do? Besides, you’ve already paid the insurance policy for a whole year; if you give up now, you won’t get anything back.”
This made Uncle Gin uneasy. “If I can get some work today, then I’ll pay you back by instalments,” he conceded.
The construction supervisor drove his lorry along Mongkok Road and pulled over in front of the hopeful crowd. He picked out a few strongly built men, leaving Uncle Gin to plead: “I’ve waited here every day and worked for you for years. For old times’ sake, please take me, I’m desperate!” The captain nodded and Uncle Gin climbed into the back of the lorry.
The job that day was to move bricks to the higher floors of a partially finished building. Uncle Gin loaded bricks into the makeshift lift at ground level and passed them up to the waiting bricklayers, who were listening to a radio announcer repeating an irritating news item:
“The Court of Final Appeal has reached its verdict on the residency of Hong Kong citizens’ children born outside Hong Kong. Yesterday, those violating their temporary visas stormed government offices and attacked the police in a show of anger. Both those who have stayed longer than permitted, and illegal immigrants, are praying for an amnesty from the SAR Government. Most of the overstayers say they are not willing to leave Hong Kong.”
The constant repetition of the news item annoyed Uncle Gin, who yelled out: “Hey, switch the channel, will you? I’m sick of hearing this news over and over again!”
While looking upwards and shouting, he lost his footing. The weight of the bricks he was carrying made it impossible for him to keep his balance. He toppled over and fell silent. An ambulance rushed to the scene, only to find Uncle Gin already dead amid a scattered load of bricks.
Limfa arrived in Hong Kong by ferry, holding her son in her arms and carrying an unborn baby in her belly. The crowded customs hall smelled of peasantry. She noticed a well-dressed, apparently educated lady and coyly followed her into one of the long queues. When Limfa was standing in front of the immigration officer at the head of the queue, she was suddenly inspired to tell him: “I came for my husband’s funeral. My cousin saw me suffering so much, and she took great care of me.” She looked past the officer towards the well-dressed lady. The officer turned and glanced at the supposed cousin and let Limfa enter.
Burdened with packages, suitcases and her son, Limfa came out of the customs building to look for her husband’s family, who were nowhere to be seen. Then it began to rain heavily, which started the little boy crying. Limfa watched the well-dressed lady get into a taxi while she cursed her in-laws: “The whole family are bastards! They don’t care, they just want to abandon us, a poor widow and her child!”
It was now dark and Limfa stumbled towards her in-laws’ house, struggling with the infant and her luggage. She could tolerate having no one meet her at the ferry terminal, she could even tolerate the rain; but nagging at her most was wondering how much funeral gift money the in-laws had received. She had calculated the number of his friends and relatives who might have attended her husband’s funeral, and was expecting to receive a minimum of HK$9,000.
When she finally arrived, her first words to the several generations of female relatives seated at the dinner table did nothing to endear her. “Is the mourning ended now? Couldn’t you wait a few more days to hold the funeral? What are you doing now, finishing off all the food gifts? How much money did you collect? It’s my husband that died; all that money belongs to his widow and son!”
Without looking up, her sister-in-law spat out a fish bone and sneered to another family member: “Last time Limfa came to Hong Kong, she walked in and asked why there was only 10,000 dollars for the bride price. We told her, her husband’s first wife didn’t get a single cent from her wedding, so why should she be any different? Now she’s after money again, this time from the funeral.”
The little boy began to cry again, and the hard looks from the in-laws added to the palpable tension. Limfa began to weep: “You are all so mean. You just couldn’t wait for a few more days.”
The eldest daughter of Uncle Gin’s first wife took a sip from her drink and said: “The funeral parlour charged daily and we had to pay all the funeral expenses. It was up to us to decide when to bury him.”
“What about the cash gifts? How much is there?” asked Limfa.
Her husband’s third sister was sick of arguing over money. She tossed a handful of notes at Limfa’s face. “Friends and relatives donated this money for the children of your husband’s first wife. You take this money and you never, never come here again!”
Limfa counted the money in tears, paused, and then screamed in anger: “Only five thousand dollars! You can’t bully me and my children like that!”
Her husband’s sister was outraged. “You deserve what you get! Is one child not enough for you? You’re having more? You’re shameless!”
Limfa’s mother-in-law was in her eighties and looked frail, but her quiet demeanour suddenly changed and she screeched: “You want more babies! You fucking whore! Even if you bear more of my grandsons, I won’t take you into our household!”
Limfa retorted: “Your son was old, ugly, and had stinking breath. I served him obediently for his last two years. Now you treat me like shit!”
The first wife’s daughter was infuriated, shouting: “If you despised our dad so much, why did you pressure him into marriage?”
This enraged Limfa. “I forced your dad into marriage? Ha! It was your dad that tricked me into this marriage! He promised to give me this, give me that; in the end, he gave nothing but his shit, and you lot!”
Inside a tumbledown building in Sham Shui Po, Insurance Kwai was breathless from climbing seven floors. He had run into an old hooker at a one-woman brothel on the third floor; she fondled his crotch, trying for a deal. Kwai said he wasn’t interested, and that he was an insurance agent there on business. The hooker’s expression went cold. “If you were in the heroin business, maybe I’d be interested,” she said and let him pass.
Kwai finally made it to the landing on the eighth floor, where he found a peasant woman washing nappies in an illegally pitched lean-to. He gathered his breath. “Excuse me. Are you Wong Limfa, Mr Ho Gin’s widow?”
“You know my husband?” Limfa replied, excited. Kwai nodded. Limfa gave him an unexpurgated version of her time since arriving in Hong Kong, and her opinion of her in-laws. For the past few days, she hadn’t been able to eat or sleep, thinking of the mean-spirited family. Kwai took a break while half-listening to her outpourings. She finally said, “My husband was a bit of a loner, but he’s been here for all these years; he must have some friends, and he has his relatives. They told me there was only five thousand dollars gift money! Do you believe that? How will his widow and children live on that? Can you help me get the rest of the money?”
Kwai took a breath: “I’m not a debt collector. You have a one-million-dollar labour insurance policy; you won’t starve to death.”
“The labour insurance payout is one million? My husband dropped dead, and the compensation is so small! Somebody must have cut a piece out of it!” Limfa exclaimed.
“Your husband was just a temporary worker, and you think one million dollars compensation is small!” Kwai was shocked to find that the peasant woman was greedier than the local Hong Kong women he was more accustomed to.
“At least I’ll have 500,000 dollars,” she said.
“Why only half?” asked Kwai. “You’ve become a widow, and you still have to support your parents’ household?”
Limfa cursed, then said, “Before marrying me, the bastard said he would invest in my family’s business, but after we opened the shop with loans, he told us he had no money, and my family was put deep in debt.”
Kwai’s instincts told him that this peasant woman was going to be a pain in the neck if he let himself become too involved. He produced some documents from his folder and adopted a businesslike tone. “Ms Wong Limfa, Mr Ho Gin bought life insurance and you are the beneficiary.”
Limfa was overjoyed: “Really? How much?” She was now so thrilled she verged on manic. She spoke uncontrollably and sprayed saliva onto Kwai’s face. Kwai wiped himself with a tissue. Limfa was embarrassed and suddenly realised that she hadn’t invited Kwai into her apartment. “Sir, what’s your name please? Come on in.”
The squalid room was strewn with nameless clutter. Uncle Gin’s portrait hung on the wall and the incessant squalling of an unseen child filled the room. Three stools were piled with miscellaneous items, so Limfa pulled another tiny stool from under the bed and handed it to Kwai. The baby’s screaming suddenly increased in volume, which merely irritated Limfa, who said: “That dead prick was hardly the perfect husband. He lived in this shitty chicken farm for ten years, and owed money to the hooker next door!”
Kwai tried some friendly conversation: “Why don’t you find a better place?”
“Moving house will cost. There will be four of us. I have to save up.” Kwai was surprised: “Four of you?” Limfa pointed at her belly: “I’ve been examined; it’s twins.” Kwai couldn’t hold back his laughter. “Old Uncle Gin, no money and no skills, except making babies!”
“So how much will the life insurance pay me?” asked Limfa. Kwai began: “The amount is US$20,000, about HK$160,000. But – ”
Limfa was disappointed and cut in: “Just 160,000! Why did the bastard buy so little insurance?” Kwai said, “Because I knew his family situation, I always tried to convince him to buy more cover, but he wouldn’t listen. As it happens he didn’t even pay the last two instalments, and you almost ended up with nothing.” Limfa was terrified. “So how much is the insurance now?”
“Don’t worry. You are lucky I paid those instalments for him, so you have the full amount. All you need to do is pay back what I’ve paid on his behalf.” Limfa grew suspicious: “Now my husband is dead you can say whatever you want. I only receive 160,000 dollars, and you are going to take a bite from my payout.”
Kwai was angry and stood up. “Cut the crap! I’m trying to help you!” Limfa fired back: “Don’t treat me like a jackass just because I am a country woman, you bully! What made you so kind to pay for him in advance?”
“You think I like any of this?” said Kwai. “Insurance agents really hate it when people stop payments after a couple of months. We’ve done all the work, made the sale, and then we get no commission. Your husband almost stopped me from winning this year’s sales championship. Each year, I have to sit at the round table at the annual sales meeting to hear about other people making a million dollars of sales. This year it was finally my turn!”
Back in his office, Kwai searched for the phone numbers of various social welfare agencies. A few phone calls led him to a social worker named Leung Chi-ko who specialised in immigrant services. Kwai told Chi-ko about a poor immigrant woman living in Sham Shui Po whose husband had tripped and fallen on a construction site, and died on the spot. The poor widow and babies had nobody to rely on and had to live in a run-down building housing one-woman brothels. It was so sad! He asked Chi-ko if social services could help her apply for residency, housing and government aid. During the conversation it took Kwai only a few minutes to get all the information he needed to size up Chi-ko as a potential client; he intended to visit him very soon.
For the rest of the day, Kwai planned to settle Wong Limfa’s life insurance policy. Calculator in hand, Kwai mouthed to himself: “Government welfare, 7,000 dollars per month; dead husband’s compensation, one million; half in the bank, that will get her 2,000 dollars monthly interest. The four of them will be living in public housing, and peasant women always try to save, so her maximum monthly expenses will be 6,000; then she could spend 2,000 on an insurance premium each month; she’s young, so she could have a 15-year policy. She could be insured for two million Hong Kong dollars.”
Chi-ko was paying Limfa a family visit. He was sitting on the same tiny stool used by Kwai. Limfa crawled under the bed and pulled out another matching stool. The leg of the stool dragged out a mousetrap, complete with a struggling mouse. Limfa opened the mousetrap and dangled the mouse by its tail in front of her infant. Watching the dying creature, Chi-ko felt sick and couldn’t go on with the conversation. When Limfa began to talk, she said: “It’s not that I want to have the babies. Doctors say the wounds from my last Caesarean aren’t healed, so it’s a high risk for me to have an abortion.”
Although he was young, Chi-ko knew enough of gynaecology as a social worker to try to persuade Limfa otherwise. “If the wounds are not healed, you really shouldn’t give birth at all.”
The writhing mouse brushed against the child, who was now scared, and started to cry. Limfa killed the mouse with a blow from her slipper and dumped it into the waste bin. The baby’s crying became louder and Limfa became annoyed. “If you keep crying, I’ll make you eat the mouse!”
Chi-ko had to say something: “You have such a bad temper. If you have more babies, aren’t you worried you may not be able to cope? A newborn is a little person, who needs to eat, be cleaned, looked after, and nurtured. Do you have the patience?”
The hooker next door was entertaining a customer. The rhythmic creaking of the bed springs bothered Chi-ko. “This environment isn’t good for the kids. You want them to grow up like this?”
Limfa cut him short: “Of course not! That’s why I have to get a residence visa. I can only apply for public housing when I have a visa, right?”
The occupants of the creaking bed were becoming increasingly vocal. Chi-ko struggled to contain his embarrassment. “One widow with three kids; why do you want to live in Hong Kong anyway?”
Limfa retorted: “You think I like it here? My whole village believes I married a rich Hong Kong guy. How can I go home with two empty hands and two new babies?”
“A mother should think about her kids’ future. How can saving face with your village match your children’s happiness?” Chi-ko asked.
Limfa felt she couldn’t reason with this young man. “You are so naive! My face doesn’t matter a bit; but if I don’t have face, my kids will be bullied! Whatever bad luck I have, it’s better to take it in Hong Kong.”
“So you think more babies will win more sympathy from the immigration office?” he asked. Limfa nodded. “I know dealing with the immigration office won’t be easy. Last time I had a baby, the immigration office showed no sympathy at all; they couldn’t wait to send me home! This time, I will show them two new babies!”
The hooker’s bed was creaking to a faster rhythm, and the baby continued crying. Limfa shouted at the baby: “You useless shit! You hear that bed day and night, what are you crying about?”
“Listen to yourself now,” said Chi-ko. “How will you deal with two more babies? If you want to have the abortion…”
“Shut up!” Limfa screamed, her saliva spattering Chi-ko’s face. He cleaned his face and saw a glimmer of maternity on those tough, angry features. Limfa cursed him: “What’s wrong with you that you don’t want others to have babies? Watch out you don’t have a baby without an asshole!”
“I am just saying that you have no family here, you are a stranger in Hong Kong, it might be more convenient for you to live in your hometown.”
Limfa shouted at him again: “Are you dumb, or just pretending? The mainland is reinforcing the birth control policy, and you are telling me to go back?”
Soon after Chi-ko left, Kwai arrived. Sitting on the same stool as before, Kwai took out an insurance plan tailored for Limfa, who was trying to feed her son porridge. She grew impatient: “Eat this, you sick son of a bitch! Or I’ll throw you out onto the street!”
Kwai had never seen a mother behave this way before. However, she was his client, and a client is of course always right. He listened to her account of Chi-ko’s visit and tried to take her side: “If he tells you to have an abortion again, you just talk about human rights! Anybody has the right to be born. Abortion is the murder of a little life!”
Feeling some emotional support, Limfa became more reasonable. “The social worker worried that I may not be able to handle it all by myself, but if I don’t keep the babies, can he handle the immigration office for me? In Hong Kong everybody has to depend on themselves.”
Kwai didn’t know what to say, so he continued on the subject of insurance. “I’ve done some calculations for you. If you get government aid and public housing, you could make monthly savings.” Limfa was delighted: “Excellent!”
Kwai went on: “Raising all these kids on your own, you’ve got to make some savings. Our company’s life savings plan is the best choice for you; it would be worth two million Hong Kong dollars.” Limfa was immediately dispirited. “I thought you were a good guy, and now you’re trying to talk me into buying insurance!”
“It’s for your own good,” Kwai explained. “Only small payments each time, and in the future, you won’t have to worry about your kids’ education.”
Out of idle curiosity she asked, “Over how many years do I pay?”
“I have tailored this 15-year scheme for you,” Kwai said. Limfa was shocked: “I’ve suffered so much to give them life, and I have to pay for their education over 15 years as well?”
Now it was Kwai’s turn to be surprised. “Haven’t you thought about education? You are having babies! You think you are laying eggs, and you can walk away from them?”